Saturday, January 3, 2015

Saturday Shorts: Aiden Elam Part One - Ghoulies in the Classroom

Hello readers and happy Saturday!  This year I'd like to start a new type of blog post called Saturday Shorts, where I will create a short story and break it into four to five parts (one installment every Saturday for each month).  I am starting with a piece told from Aiden Elam's point of view (from the Otherworld series).  Some of you might know that I've been planning to write another set of books that tell Aiden's story.  Although those books are a ways off, and they will be taking place when Aiden is much older, there is no reason he can't be sharing his side of the story with us now.  If you have not yet read the Otherworld Trilogy, I recommend you do so before reading this post (unless you don't mind spoilers ;)).  Enjoy and I hope to bring you more stories in the future!  Oh, and one more thing - this piece has not seen a professional edited, so beware of typos :).
-J.E. Johnson
PART 1: Ghoulies in the Classroom

It’s so very hard to be little, especially when you are little and unable to tell people what you are thinking.  On the other hand, sometimes being stuck inside your own head can be a good thing.  I can think better about stuff that way.  Not the usual stuff everyone else my age thinks about, like when the newest episode of their favorite cartoon is going to air, or if their moms will let them go on a play date with their best friend, but the kind of stuff they don’t notice normally.  I think it’s because most kids and adults are so distracted by all the noise and lights in the world that they miss the cool stuff. 

Well, I guess ‘cool’ is the wrong word to describe it.  ‘Creepy’ is probably a better description.  Just yesterday, something creepy happened at my school.  I don’t go to the same kind of school my brothers go to, but I’m pretty sure weird little monsters don’t just climb into their classrooms in the middle of lunch recess.

At normal schools, you have to talk to people and answer your teacher if she asks a question.  Where I go to school, I don’t have to do any of that.  I like learning and discovering new things just fine, but at a regular school, I think the noises and the mean kids would be too much for me.  Mom and Dad say that I have autism, and that’s why I have trouble behaving like a normal kid.  I don’t know that much about autism, but from what I heard Mom and Dad saying when they thought I wasn’t listening is that I have many of the symptoms.

At the time I didn’t know what a symptom was, so I had to look it up in Logan’s dictionary.  He’s my older brother.  It was hard pulling the dictionary from his bookshelf and even harder to find the word. 

I knew it was in the S section, but sometimes when I’m doing something, my body won’t stop when I tell it to.  Like looking for the word.  My fingers kept flipping the pages long after I realized I had wandered in the T’s.  Other times, my body works faster than my mind and I’ll stop in the middle of doing something even when my brain is asking me to keep going.  It is very frustrating, but I have learned to live with it.

When I finally made it back to the right spot in the S’s, I read that a symptom is a sign that something is wrong.  That had scared me.  For a whole week I moved around the house more carefully and quietly than normal.  Being scared of something when you can’t tell your family why is very hard. 

Eventually, Mom sat down with me and gradually discovered the reason for my glum mood.

“Symptoms,” was all I could say.

She must have realized I had overheard her and Dad, because she told me that my autism made me different than other kids, but not sick or bad.  She said that the doctor was going to try and find some medicine to make me better, but that I didn’t need to worry because she and Dad would look after me.

“Meggy?” I had asked in a small voice.

Meggy was what I called my older sister, but her real name is Meghan.  Of my entire family, I love Meghan the most, maybe even more than Mom and Dad.  It sounds awful, to love your sister more than your parents, but for some reason I just do.  It’s like my heart has special little rooms inside for all my family and friends, but Meggy’s spot is bigger than all the rest.

Mom had laughed at my question and kissed me on the head.  “Oh yes, Meghan will always look after you, too.”

And so it was because of my autism that I went to a different school than the other kids on our street. 

I didn’t mind, and most days were calm with very little excitement.  Except for what happened yesterday.

Some days we stayed inside during our lunch break and played with the toys in the classroom. Tuesday was one of those days.  After we were done eating, Mrs. Warren excused us from our tables to go play.  I went directly to my cubby and pulled out a comic book from home, the pages worn and creased from the dozens of times I’d looked through it.

I was just sitting down on the carpet when a foul scent wafted in my direction.  I wrinkled my nose and instinctively looked toward the open window, my eyes widening at what I spotted there.  Our classroom was on the second floor of the building, so the only things we ever saw outside were the trees at the edge of the lawn, the road beyond that, and the birds that visited the feeders hanging in the oak tree nearby.  But it wasn’t a tree or a bird that I saw. 

It was one of the ghoulies from my backyard.  But what was it doing here?  Ever since I was little, strange creatures that looked like half-rotten monsters had been showing up in my yard and the swamp behind it.  At first, they had frightened me, but I remembered Meggy talking about them before I started going to school, so I figured everyone saw them.  When my sister stopped talking about them, I thought they had gone away, but then they started showing up again.  I waited for Meghan to say something, but she never did, and so I didn’t either.  I learned to watch her carefully after that, and I realized that she could still see them.  She just wasn’t telling anyone.  I decided to do the same thing.

And now one of them was hanging onto the ledge and peering through the open window.  It had shiny skin, like a frog or some other animal that lived in wet places, and it was the color of splotchy mud.  Long, crooked yellow teeth jutted out from its lower jaw, and its nose was upturned like a pig's. When I squinted, I could just make out a nasty halo of blackish red smoke radiated from its dark hide, like silt unfurling and forming clouds of color in clear water.  All of the nasty things, the ghoulies, always had this weird color surrounding them, and they all smelled terrible.

I would have been afraid, but like I said, I had seen them before.  Not all of them looked exactly like this one, but I knew it was a ghoulie and I knew it wouldn't hurt me.  The other ones had stayed away from me the way mosquitoes avoid me when they realize I’m wearing bug repellent.  Anyway, I was mostly afraid it might hurt my classmates.  Just like everyone else, except for Meggy and me, they couldn’t see it.  As I watched it, the ghoulie shoved the upper half of its body through the window and was now reaching for the ground with its short front legs.

Click, click, click…

I jerked my attention away from the window and cast a glance at the girl, Maddie, sitting closest to me.  She had pulled over a barrel of wooden blocks onto the carpet and was cracking them together, her glasses making her pale blue eyes as large as an owl’s.  The blocks came in many different shapes, the kind you used to make wooden cities with arches and columns.

One of the blocks, a rectangular-shaped one, had toppled away from the rest of the pile.  I reached out, and ignoring Maddie’s screech of disapproval, grasped the wooden block in my hand, my fingers clumsy and slow to respond to my thoughts.  The corners were smoothed and it was almost as heavy as a rock.  I knew there was a risk of breaking the window if I threw it, but the monster now had its orange eyes fixed on Bella.  She had an even harder time than I did communicating with normal people, and she couldn’t move very fast.  The creature would go for her first.

Sticking my tongue out in concentration, I drew my arm back and threw the wood as hard as I could, holding my breath and praying it didn’t miss.  To my great relief, the wood cracked against the creature’s skull, causing it to squeal and jerk away from Bella, scrambling backwards through the window.

Mrs. Rodriguez turned away from one of the other boys, Jake, and glanced at the open window, then straightened and narrowed her eyes at the girl beside me.

“Maddie, did you throw a block at the window?”

Maddie just grinned and continued to click the wooden blocks together, making a burbling sound as she did so.

Miss Rodriguez must not have been too worried about us throwing blocks because she looked back down at Jake.  Or maybe it was because Jake had started flinging paint around with his paintbrush and she needed to return his focus on keeping the paint on the paper.

Now that the scary monster was gone, I breathed a sigh of relief, one of the only sounds I could make without trying very hard.  It was so frustrating.  I knew how to read, and how to write, even if my letters didn’t always turn out neat or facing in the proper direction.  I could picture them in my mind, the words I wanted to say as well, but every time I tried to speak or print out a sentence, my throat would close up, or my mind would go suddenly blank.  It was as if the string of words belonging to the sentence I wanted to write broke loose and went flying all over the place like deflating balloons.

My eyebrows drew together and I glanced up, looking around the room and taking note of all of my classmates.  There were only seven of us altogether.  We were in what is called a Special Needs class. None of us were like normal kids, but that was okay.  My mom and my teachers reminded me that I was extra special, and that’s why I couldn’t go to a school like my brothers or sister.

Knowing all this didn’t bother me.  I didn’t want to be like the normal kids.  Bradley and Logan had told me stories about some of the kids at their school who were mean to them and the other students. The nice thing about my school was that all my classmates usually got along and none of them ever did anything just to be mean.  Even so, something, some feeling deep inside of me, told me that I was very different from my fellow classmates as well.  Seeing the ghoulies was only part of it.

Maddie made a loud noise and I jumped, breaking out of my own personal reflection.  When I looked up at her, she was smiling and holding out one of the wooden arches.

I tried smiling back.  She was asking me if I would help her build a city.  Deciding it was best for me to forget about the monster in the window, I took the block and scooted closer to her.  As I started stacking wooden shapes with as much coordination as my hands would allow me, I thought about some of the other reasons I was different.  I created a bridge with one of the larger arches and glanced up at my friend.

Maddie didn’t glow like me.  Neither did Jake, Russell, Bella or Mira.  Mrs. Warren and her assistant Miss Rodriguez didn’t glow, either.  In fact, most people didn’t glow.  Just me and my sister, Meghan.  When I was little, I didn’t think too much about it.  But now that I was seven, I wondered about stuff all the time.  Not just why we glowed, but also why we saw the ghoulies and no one else did.

I sighed and got back to building castles with Maddie.  Thinking about monsters reminded me of the ghoulie from earlier.  I still had no idea why it had showed up here, or why it was out during the day. Usually I only saw them before and after sunset.  Trying to forget about it, I picked up a cone-shaped block and was about to add it to the top of a turret when a shadow momentarily blocked the light streaming in through the window.  I glanced up, my hand freezing in mid-air like a crane jerking to a stop over a half-constructed skyscraper.  The ghoulie from earlier was back, its wicked claws scratching at the corner of the ledge, trying to find purchase on the windowsill.

My mouth went dry and my skin grew hot.  I risked a glance at my arm.  Just as I suspected, the pale blue glow of my skin had grown a little brighter.  This always scared me.  It happened a lot when I was frightened or mad or sad.  Each time it happened, I was worried my skin might actually melt, but I always managed to calm down before it grew worse.

I returned my attention to the window and nearly gasped.  A second ghoulie had joined the other and was trying to force its way in as well.  And then a third one appeared, its beady eyes fierce and glowing orange as it peered at me through the window.  The fear crept over my skin like icy spiders and I tried to remain calm.  Why were there so many?  What were they doing out in the middle of the day?  And then I remembered: Halloween was only three days away.  That would explain why there were so many, but not why they were here.

Halloween night had always made me nervous, ever since before I could walk.  Mom or Meghan would help me make my costume, and then I’d go out trick-or-treating with my brothers and sister, just like all the other kids.  I would laugh and scream and try to look like I was having a good time. That’s what grown-ups expected of kids on Halloween.  Only, that was the one time of year that the ghoulies came out the most.  Kind of like the way worms crawl out onto the sidewalks after a rainstorm.  Even if they could never get close enough to hurt me, they still scared me and gave me bad dreams.

The slight rustle of cloth distracted me from the creatures scrabbling at the window sill.  Mari, who had been completely absorbed in her picture book over in the library nook, had flung the book down and was making a bee line for the window.

For a few seconds I sat gaping at her.  Could she see the monsters, too?  I returned my eyes to the window.  One of the ghoulies had pulled its attention away from the classroom and was busy eyeing a hummingbird buzzing around the feeder in the oak tree.

“Hummie, hummie!” Mari squealed, her hands outstretched as she moved closer to the window.

Without giving it a second thought, I dropped the block I was holding.  It crashed down and crumbled the castle in progress into a pile of rubble.  Maddie gasped, then made a sound of outrage, but I hardly noticed.  I was too busy making my way to the window.

Lookout!  I wanted to shout.  The ghoulies will hurt you!  But all that came out was, “Goos!  Hurt!”

With my heart racing in time with my feet, I shoved Mari out of the way and reached for the window latch.  The girl went down screeching, crying at the top of her lungs when her bottom hit the ground. 
The monsters latched their attention onto me, their predatory eyes narrowing as they bared their teeth and hissed.  One of them had slipped its arm through the open window and was trying to sink its claws into the wall.

Panicking, I spun around, trying to find something to use as a weapon against it.  A shelf of books, some bean bag chairs, the table with our math activity from earlier ….  A cup of pencils sat on the bookshelf closest to me.  As quickly as I could, I reached out and grabbed one of the largest pencils, nearly shouting in triumph as my thoughts and actions worked in unison for once.  The tip was dull from use and the eraser was worn all the way down to the metal band, but it would have to do.

Another sharp hiss, followed by a growl, caught my attention and I spun back around.  The first ghoulie had wedged the window open further and had stuck its head through, its pig nose sniffing the air.  It glared at me, but couldn’t swipe me with its claws because both front feet were being used to hang onto the windowsill.  The smell coming off of it made me gag, and I held my arm up to my nose.  The monster lunged again and the others behind it forgot all about the hummingbird as they turned to regard me and the other students once again.

A fresh shriek of anger and pain from Mari had drawn the attention of our teachers.  Mrs. Warren and Miss Rodriguez were now looking in our direction with worry on their faces.  I continued to stare at the three ghoulies, scraping my brain for any sort of idea that might make them go away.  They were still struggling, but it wouldn’t be long before they made it into the classroom, especially since the first one had almost succeeded earlier.  I didn’t have much time.  Taking a deep breath and telling myself to be brave, I turned the pencil around, pointy end out, and shoved it as hard as I could into the eye of the closest ghoulie.

The beast screeched in pain and let go of the windowsill to claw at its eye.  The others, who had mostly been hanging onto the first one, wheeled back and the whole lot of them crashed to the ground below.  Taking a shaky breath, I stepped forward, almost falling over my own feet, and pulled the window shut. It clicked into place and I fumbled with the latch until it locked.

By that time both Mrs. Warren and Miss Rodriguez were kneeling beside Mari to see if she had hurt herself.  The dark-haired girl mumbled something and pointed in my direction.  Her face was scarlet and there were streaks of tears painting her cheeks.

“Aiden?” Miss Rodriguez asked softly, “Did you push Mari down?”

I stood still, my hands clamped behind my back, and hung my head.  It was times like these that I really wished I could talk like normal kids.

I nodded my head.  Even if I couldn’t communicate like everyone else, I never lied.  Mom had told me that lying made you weaker and being honest made you stronger, even if it was hard to be honest.  
I was already weak in so many ways.  I wanted to be strong, so I never lied.

“Why?” Mrs. Warren pressed.

I looked up toward the window.  Blackish streaks and a few scratches showed on the wall, but like the creatures, I knew I was the only one who noticed the marks.  I wanted to tell them about the ghoulies, but I knew that telling people you saw scary monsters that no one else could see was worse than lying.  Instead, I told them something else that may not have been entirely truthful, but wasn’t really a lie either.

There was something dangerous trying to get in through the window, a wasp I think.  Mari was distracted by the hummingbird and didn’t see it, so I pushed her so she wouldn’t get stung, then closed the window so it wouldn’t get inside.

That’s what I would have said if I could.  Instead, I opened my mouth and tried to speak.  After a long while, all that came out was, “Wasp near window.  Help.”

I wanted to cry.  Not because I thought I was in trouble, or even because I felt bad for knocking Mari down, but because I couldn’t tell my teachers what had happened.  I couldn’t even apologize properly to Mari for being so rude.  But I did try.

Turning toward my classmate, I mumbled, “Sworry,” and offered her my hand.

She stared at it with big brown eyes and sniffed once before reaching out her own hand to accept my help.  Her fingers were wet, but I knew it was because of her tears.

“Thankoo Aiden,” she said, her rage and tears suddenly gone.

She smiled at me and gave me a hug, which made me blush.  Mom was always teasing me by saying that Mari had a crush on me, and now I was beginning to wonder if saving her from the ghoulies had made it worse.

“Next time, you need to get one of us if you see any wasps,” Mrs. Warren said, her voice more stern than before.

Both she and Miss Rodriguez got up and returned to their previous tasks.  Taking a deep breath and letting it out, I shuffled back over to Maddie and helped her pick up the blocks.  I expected her to be angry with me as well, but during the whole incident at the window she managed to start building the castle’s foundation once again.

For five more minutes I helped with the blocks until Miss Rodriguez rang the bell announcing our lunch break was over.  We all put back our toys and games and then headed to our cubbies where our pillows and blankets were stored.  I recovered my comic book and put it back as well.

“Alright boys and girls!” Mrs. Warren proclaimed.  “Nap time!”

Jake and Mari groaned, but Maddie and Bella started rolling out their blankets.  Russell refused to follow directions at first, but then Miss Rodriguez went over to encourage him to join the rest of the class.  Not wanting to draw any more attention to myself, I did as I was told, smoothing out the corners of my small quilt and fluffing my pillow.  I especially loved my pillow because my sister had bought it for me.

“It’s green and extra soft,” she’d told me when she brought it home with Mom one day.  “And I even got a little pouch full of dried lavender to put inside the pillowcase to help you sleep.”

Logan and Bradley had laughed and told me it made me smell like a girl, but I didn’t care.  Meggy had got it for me.

As I lay still, listening to the relaxing music Miss Rodriguez had put on for us, I breathed in deeply, the faint scent of lavender tickling my nose.  The smell reminded me of my big sister and thinking of Meghan made me feel much better.  Soon the scary images of the ghoulies faded from my mind and I fell asleep.

Thank you for reading this first installment from Aiden's point of view!  Hopefully I'll have the next installment up soon.  In the meantime, discover the Otherworld with the first book in the series, Faelorehn.  The ebook free on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo and Smashwords!  The audio book edition is also available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

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